THE SPIRIT OF RAMZAN (published in 2003)

(This article on Ramzan was written and published in the Star at a time when there was not much information about our traditions. I feel its relevant even today)

Growing up in Pakistan, my grandmother lived with us. When she became old and frail she couldn’t fast in the month of Ramzan, so she used to weep. (Ramzan is the ninth month of Islamic lunar calendar in which able-bodied Muslims must refrain from food and drink from dawn till dusk everyday for a month – In Toronto, Ramzan started on Monday October 27).

As a young child to whom feasting meant more than fasting, I couldn’t understand why Daadiama (endearment for grandmother) was unhappy when she could eat all she wants.  She would say, “I don’t know if I’ll live to receive the blessing of another Ramzan and I want to make the most of these special days.” So she would wake us for the pre-dawn meal, insisting we read the Koran. (The Koran was revealed to Prophet Mohammad in the month of Ramzan)  Daadiama told us that the message of the Koran is to be a source of awakening and enlightenment. She would recite special invocations and prayers all day long.  Her favorite prayer was: “O Allah bestow on me in this month wisdom to have mercy on orphans and to feed the hungry and keep the company of the righteous. I appeal to thee in the name of Thy benevolence. O, the shelter of the destitute, the Beneficent and Merciful.”

Since Daadiama was elderly and on medication, she was exempt from fasting (as are travelers, pregnant or breastfeeding women, the infirm and young children). However it was incumbent on her to make arrangements for a poor person to be fed throughout the month of Ramzan.  Daadiama insisted that she would personally prepare the early morning and evening meal for this less fortunate person and arranged for someone to come to the house and join us for the two meals everyday. This person and anyone else passing by, were our guests for meals, because Daadiama would say “in Ramzan the  doors to hell are closed, the devil is on vacation and doors to heaven are wide open, so vie with each other to do good.”

As I grew older and started fasting regularly, I understood that this practice, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is not about giving up food, rather about self control, good thoughts & actions, charity, retrospection and reflection – a sort of annual ‘servicing-of-the-soul’. I realized that I’m not allowed to be crabby because I haven’t had my morning caffeine, nor lie, cheat or say a harsh word – so a smile and happy face was part of the deal. (In Ramzan fasting Muslims are supposed to eat before sunrise and after sunset everyday for 29 or 30 and then celebrate their largest festival called Eid.)

During those days of fasting long ago, the best part was the preparation and intention of making this a special time of sharing and caring. We would wake up before dawn and see twinkling lights come on in homes all around. It was such a warm feeling of solidarity. Even in those early morning hours, when stars still shone and the sky was dark, people would exchange pleasantries and food. The smell of ‘parathas’ (fried bread) would waft in the air. Special radio programs resounded with the sound of Koran recitation and we waited until the sound of the Azaan (call to prayer) to make our intention for fasting each day and to stop eating. Some of us went back to sleep – others used the early morning peace and quiet to pray and reflect.

Life would get back to normal during the day – kids went to study, while elders went to work.  It was strange how the entire ambience and atmosphere changed – there was a feeling of spirituality in the air. I understand why fasting is called the ‘invisible worship’ because there’s no one to check and see if we eat or drink something. One could easily hide in a corner and eat – but despite our hunger and thirst, none of us did. It was the unwritten understanding and covenant with God that kept us going. Support from people around us was a great boon because everyone was involved in the same practice.

I’m especially nostalgic for the hustle bustle before the opening of the fast at sunset.  Usually it was a longish day because we didn’t have the benefit of daylight savings time. An hour or so before sunset, the flurry of activity increased as Dadiamma perched on a chair giving loud instructions. Someone was sent off to buy ‘jaleebis’ (a special sweet fried and dipped in syrup) and told strictly to ensure they were fresh and crisp, another person would be delegated to prepare milk with ground almonds and a third person could be in charge of dates (usually used to open the fast for instant energy).  The air would be filled with the tempting odors of samosas and pakoras (East Indian snacks).  Everything had to be co-coordinated for a specific time –  the call to prayer and the siren that went off indicating it was time for opening of the fast. Even then, it was amazing to note that no one attacked the food with vengeance although you felt like eating the whole table. This was a time when one had a chance to reflect on those less fortunate, the poor and hungry, those facing wars and famine. We said a prayer and then we ate. After food there were more congregational prayers so the path to spirituality was well chalked out, taking away the focus from food to faith.

Before coming to Canada I spent a few years in Dubai, near the Arabian Sea. Here Ramzan was a joy and totally different from Pakistan. People worked only from 8a.m. to 1 p.m., at which time everyone slept and the city closed down. At sunset, everything and everyone came to life and the city shone like a star, with stores and malls open all night. Tents with sparkling chandeliers were set up along the beach, where people would come for tea and treats.  Masjids (place of worship) stayed open all night for those who wished to spend their night praying – fasting was a religious, social, political and commercial event in the true sense.

As I recall those Ramzans of the past, I miss Daadiama. Today I can fully understand her angst. I’m diabetic and exempt from fasting but acceptance hasn’t been easy. I feel left out and isolated so I’m trying to follow in Daadiama’s footsteps by participating on the spiritual level. I still work staggered hours and wake up before dawn. My family tells me I don’t have to, but this is my contribution to Ramzan. I’ve increased my work in the interfaith community and hope to spend valuable time with my family, reflecting on the meaning of the Koran and pondering its message to find enlightenment and enrichment.

For Muslims in Canada, perhaps this Ramzan is much more reflective of where they are at, as they continue to face challenges and their faith is put to test. This is a time when their loyalty is being questioned, and their civil rights suppressed. Some young Muslims are incarcerated; others are facing trials and our hearts go out to them. Perhaps this is also a time when Muslims realize that Ramzan prepares them to face trials and tribulations with patience, self control and forbearance – the very spirit of Ramzan.